Saturday, September 05, 2009

The joys of indoctrination

When I was at primary school in Australia in the 1970s, the curriculum still had a certain colonial quality about it. I recall a spelling book which was full of dictation exercises containing passages talking about how the Queen had been received on her visit to India and discussing how "the Commonwealth makes good sense" and blah blah blah. Mixed in with this, we of course got the requisite stuff about polar exploration, and all the inspiring stuff about the heroic Scott and Shackleton and all that, with the nice fact being mentioned that probably the third most distinguished Antarctic explorer from the British empire (Mawson) was an Australian. Mixed in with all this was the sad acknowledgement that the first man to the South Pole was in fact Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian. What I was taught even included remnants of the standard British disparagement of the man, which was that he simply ran an efficient, straight to the Pole there and back expedition, whereas the heroic Scott was somehow on a morally higher plane for having scientific motives as well as the simple desire to be first to the pole, and that there was something not fair about Amundsen slaughtering some of his dogs and eating the meat, etc etc etc. Even to the young me, it was fairly clear that there were some sour grapes in this, and that Amundsen would likely have been written about as the greatest of heroes if he had done everything exactly the same had he happened to have been British. Plus there was the fact that Scott ate his horses. The only real difference was that Amundsen was smart enough to take the correct animals with him.

Of course, if I had gone to school in Norway, I am sure I would have found Amundsen talked about as the greatest of heroes, so the man certainly doesn't fail to get his due. It is just that he achievement was received with a certain amount of bad grace by the British.

One key point about the fact that Amundsen and Scott got to the South Pole within a few weeks of each other is that there is absolutely no doubt that they both got there. Amundsen left physical evidence behind, and Scott found that physical evidence a few weeks later and confirmed that yes, Amundsen had reached the pole.

Somehow, though, this morning, for the first time in about 30 years I found myself thinking about polar exploration. Wandering around Wikipedia, I found myself reading about Arctic exploration rather than Antarctic. My schooling spent more time discussing the Antarctic, probably mainly because the British were involved. The Arctic had been done by Americans, largely, and this was seemingly mentioned briefly, with a footnote that the reason why Amundsen went to the South Pole was because he had wanted to be the first man to the North Pole, but had changed his direction in 1909 upon discovering that Robert Peary had reached the North Pole. After Peary had reached the North Pole via surface travel, Richard Byrd of the US Army had then become the first man to fly over the North Pole in 1926

However, to my surprise today, I discovered that there is now pretty clear evidence that neither Peary nor Byrd got to the North Pole. Both apparently made sincere attempts to get there, encountered difficulties before getting the whole way, turned around and returned to civilization claiming falsely that they had made it.

Who led the first expedition that can be unequivocally confirmed to have reached the North Pole? Well, that was a Norwegian expedition which travelled there by airship in 1926, a few days after Byrd's claimed flight. The leader of that Norwegian expedition? One Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is justly famous for having led the first expedition that got to the South Pole. However, he almost certainly also led the first expedition that reached the North Pole as well. Amundsen did not land, and the first people to set foot on the Pole were apparently the crew of a Soviet aircraft who landed there in 1948. And the first expedition to reach the pole by surface transport (rather than an aircraft or submarine) apparently did not do so until 1968. A lot of these people did not realise that they were pioneers, because Peary's claims were accepted for a number of decades. Who was "first to the pole" depends on definitions, but giving it to Amundsen seems reasonably fair.

I am slightly disturbed that I did not know this until now. I suspect I probably would have if I were Norwegian.

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